Tag Archives: transportation policy

When We Don’t Ask The Right Questions….

According to Engineering News Record (yes, I know I read a lot of weird shit–blame this one on my spouse, who subscribes),

A congressionally mandated study is recommending a dramatic increase in current highway spending to launch an ambitious new program to upgrade and modernize the aging, sometimes congested, Interstate Highway System. The report also calls for a hike in the federal gas tax to help pay for the plan.

It’s hard to fault this conclusion; the Interstate Highway System, like most of America’s infrastructure, is in indefensible disrepair. But looking at only one element of an integrated transportation system is like blaming all the dysfunctions of our broken government on Trump, without reference to the broken political system that facilitated his emergence and election. (Yes, we need to “fix” the Presidency by getting rid of the current occupant ASAP, but we also need to address gerrymandering, vote suppression, the Electoral College, the filibuster…)

Transportation, like so much else in our rapidly changing world, is undergoing all sorts of changes. A report that focuses only on highways (and not all highways, at that) without considering the present and future operation of the entire transportation system– air, rail (freight & passenger), state roads, etc.–misses much of the picture.

What sorts of transportation should policies promote? (For that matter, have any policies demonstrated the ability to shift those preferences? How? And which ones?)

What would the evidence tell us if we were asking the  right (systemic) questions? What are the relative costs and benefits of shipping goods via rail versus truck, for example? (Data I’ve seen would suggest that we put more money into rail.) How do different modes of transit affect the environment? Which transportation methods are most energy efficient? What is the return on investment of repairs to highways versus repairs and upgrades to rail and air?

I am definitely not suggesting that we allow our Interstates to fall into further disrepair while we debate our approach to a more rational transportation policy, but America has a tendency to pay for mansions where cabins are all we need, especially when policymakers are hiring private contractors who can be expected to return the favor and support those policymakers when the next election comes around.

When lots of money has been spent on something, there’s a natural incentive to use it. (Ask any woman who bought an expensive dress that she subsequently realizes was a mistake.) It’s human nature to look for reasons justifying the original decisions–and to ignore alternatives that might be more cost-effective , convenient or make more economic sense.

If we want to base policy on sound evidence (which I’m not at all sure we do…),if we want good data gathered from sound research to inform our decision-making, it helps to start by asking the right question.

We desperately need a comprehensive analysis of America’s infrastructure. All of it.

Mother, May I?

Every so often, residents of Indiana’s cities and towns are forcibly reminded that we don’t have the right to govern ourselves—that we are not, to use the legal terminology, a “home rule” state. Instead, Indiana municipalities are creatures of state law, and absolutely subject to the whims, ideologies, policy preferences and egos of state lawmakers. We may vote for a mayor and City-County Council, but those holding such offices must go hat in hand to the state for permission to do anything not specifically authorized by state statute.

Repeated efforts over the years to make Indiana a home-rule state have failed, and thanks to the recent vote putting tax caps into the constitution, the situation will only get worse. Those who control the purse-strings control policy.

The most recent evidence of our local impotence is the legislative response to Indianapolis’ request to hold a referendum on mass transit. After years of studies and debate, a broad, bipartisan coalition of Indianapolis’ business, political and civic leaders has rolled out a plan to upgrade our inadequate transit system. That plan requires revenue not available from current taxes, and the local committee proposed to put the question to those of us who live within the area to be served; we would vote on whether to tax ourselves to provide better service.

The immediate legislative reaction was insufferably paternalistic: “we don’t think the time is right to allow you to decide this for yourselves.”

There are two issues here. First, improving transportation is critical to the economic health of central Indiana. Over the years, Indianapolis and central Indiana have generated more jobs, and attracted more residents, than other sections of the state. That good performance has been largely due to an attractive quality of life. Our transportation deficit threatens that quality of life, and the inability of workers to get to their places of employment conveniently and inexpensively threatens our ability to attract new employers and our continued economic health. This is hardly news; city leaders have spent years debating what sort of system we need. It is past time to fish or cut bait.

The second issue is our right to decide matters of local importance for ourselves.

It is ironic that the same state legislators and officeholders who complain bitterly when Indiana has to comply with regulations, programs and unfunded mandates from Washington see nothing wrong with telling local governments what they can and cannot do.

When a measure is proposed that concerns Indianapolis and central Indiana, that measure should be decided by the residents of Indianapolis and central Indiana. There is an argument to be made that an improved transit system, by generating economic growth, would also improve state tax revenues, but the benefits of the proposed system would basically be limited to those who live in central Indiana.  We are also the ones who would bear the costs.

We may make a good decision or a poor one, but it is a decision that should be ours to make.